By Shane Dingman
On the way to work I passed through an ice coated dog park, one of those ones that lets dogs roam around without a leash, free to terrorize squirrels and babies without ripping arms out of sockets. As I navigated the hounds I noticed a little yappy dog trying to pick up a half-squashed two litre pop bottle in its mouth. Of course, its mouth was too small and so the bottle would squirt away gaily across the icy ground, prompting the little mutt to chase it down and try again. As I intemperately roared while the anklebiter ran faster and faster around in circles with its tiny mouth vainly attempting to grasp the bottle, I had a strange and terrible insight.
That little dog’s trial was the perfect metaphor for the RyeSAC executive elections.
You see, no matter how much the little dogs at RyeSAC try to interest the students in the campaign, with colourful posters and obscenely vague and grandiose promises, they just can’t put their teeth in the bottle of student apathy.
This should not really surprise anyone who’s been here a little while. This is the sixth election I will have a participated in (yes, I’m an old salty Ryerson seadog who will now dispense wisdom like so many cranky rants about achy bones) and the response from the editorials and the executive wannabes is always the same.
“Come on, care about us! Democracy is a sweet and gentle flower to be nurtured and loved!” The variant is: “You idiots wouldn’t know democracy if it shacked up with your sister and stole your car on weekends… You’ll get exactly the government of fixers and ‘gators you deserve.”
These are oversimplifications, and while I’m about to deliver another one it is at least of a different flavour.
Turn out for elections is low here, around 1,200-1,500 people vote. Ten per cent of the student population does not a sweeping mandate make. This is why the candidates make such a fuss about more people voting, not just because they want to win, but because they want to win convincingly. The larger the mandate, the more likely what you shout about will be taken seriously because it looks like you represent the interests of a powerful majority.
Student government at this university is basically a farce because the real power to change policy at Ryerson (policy that matters like tuition regulations, on-campus publications, allocation of university resources for things like prayer space or program space and academic policies) resides in the hands of two bodies that are wholly undemocratic for students and totally unaccountable to them. That would be the Board of Governors and Academic Council. Students do it and vote on these bodies, but not enough of them to alter the university’s course.
Make no mistake — RyeSAC does deliver valuable services and add an important layer to the game of on-campus politics. Certainly it would be far worse around here without a student government, despite what some nihilistic people think. They work crazy-hard, harder than that little dog chased the bottle that’s for sure. And while their victories are few and small, they work themselves into exhaustion because they listen too closely to bad sports clichés that suggest if we put in 110 per cent and we get lucky we can pull off a win.
The fact remains that on many of the issues candidates promise action they do not have the power to deliver. For instance, the student centre plank: RyeSAC is among several large stakeholders with a position on the needs of the student centre, but they do not have the unilateral power to build it, though student government types can unilaterally delay it (as we have seen with the performance of a former RyeSAC prez, Erin George). Let’s not even mention the hubris behind FREEZE THE FEES!
To return to the dog’s problem, RyeSAC simply lacks jaws powerful enough and large enough to scoop the students up and motivate them. Motivated students are a rare group, it takes an obvious thing like a war for them to think alike in any large mass. The tricky problems of saving public education for the new millennium are almost impossible to explain in a way that will gain the support of students. That’s before their efforts are diluted by the realization that voting for RyeSAC won’t significantly affect those issues.
So our voter turn-out is low because students aren’t fooled by the gaudy posters and sunny promises. RyeSAC electives are essentially democratically chosen bureaucrats and it’s really hard to make that sexy. Unless you have a beef with Copy Rite, Ram in the Rye’s management, RyeSAC’s activism, student groups or course unions you don’t need to vote for these guys.
What Ryerson needs to electrify its students into political participation is a democratic student senate that can propose and stop policy delivery at the highest levels. Students do want to be heard, they just don’t want to waste their energy with a sideshow. However, as gorgeous an idea as a student senate is, it’ll never happen because the bigwigs upstairs have no incentive to create it or surrender power. Not in the least because the minute they did a good proportion of those hunchbacked freaks, who have run rampant over student concerns with the untrammelled power the tower affords them, would be lined up against the wall and liquidated. Er, am, fired that is.